Thomas W. Sarnoff Dies: Longtime TV Academy & NBC Executive Was 96

Thomas Sarnoff, the son of NBC’s founder who went from key NBC executive to leading roles at the Television Academy and TV Academy Foundation and founded the Archive of American Television, has died. He was 96.

TV Academy spokesman Jim Yeager said Sarnoff died June 4 at the Motion Picture & Television Fund’s nursing home in Woodland Hills.

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Born on February 23, 1927, he was the youngest son of RCA/NBC media mogul David Sarnoff. Family lore has it that the younger Sarnoff was TV’s “first live star,” serving as a test subject for the RCA/NBC World’s Fair demonstration of television in the late 1930s.

But in 1949, instead of joining NBC, he became a floor manager at ABC in Los Angeles. He was hired at NBC in 1952 as an assistant to the director of finance and operations and was promoted to VP Production and Business Affairs in 1957.

He went on to served as staff EVP, West Coast, and president of NBC Entertainment Corp. from 1965-77, reporting to the president of NBC. During that tenure, he negotiated contracts for the network’s famed Burbank facility and production deals with the likes of Bob Hope and Colonel Tom Parker, the latter for Elvis Presley’s TV specials.

Sarnoff also worked at MGM, learning film techniques that he would later apply to his work in TV and his oversight of film productions for NBC Productions and California National Productions.

Sarnoff most notably was a champion and leader of both the Television Academy and Television Academy Foundation for five decades.

Sarnoff most notably was a champion and leader of both the Television Academy and Television Academy Foundation for five decades. From 1973-74 he served as chairman of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences — before the organization’s 1977 split into the Los Angeles-based Television Academy, which oversees the Primetime Emmy Awards, and the New York-based National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, which oversees Daytime, News and Sports Emmys.

He served on the Television Academy’s executive committee for the board of governors and in the 1990s took on the chairmanship of the Television Academy Foundation, for which he was named chair emeritus in perpetuity.

In a 1999 interview with the Television Academy Foundation, Sarnoff said, “The highlight of my career at NBC, was building a close-knit and very efficient organization on the West Coast that served NBC very well for many years.” Watch a clip below from that sit-down, during which he also talks about the Archive of American Television, which interviews “people who have been around for a long time in the industry. … That’s really our way of trying to preserve the history of the television industry through the eyes and mouths of the people who were there from the beginning.”

Launched in 1996, the archive is a fascinating an invaluable amalgam of information about the business. It features more than 900 oral-history interviews spanning roughly 3,000 hours. Its initial mission was to preserve the voices of those involved with the beginning of TV but since “has expanded to safeguard the narratives of more recent storytellers and those denied access to the industry at its inception,” per its website.

Following his NBC career, Sarnoff created Sarnoff International Enterprises Inc., producing the Yabba Dabba Doo live-arena tour featuring Hanna-Barbera characters. He also was responsible for the production and worldwide touring of live arena shows including Peter Pan and Disney on Parade, the latter in partnership with the company then known as Walt Disney Productions.

Sarnoff International Enterprises also revived the popular clay-animated character Gumby in association with creator Art Clokey and produced a 1987 half-hour series. He also served as executive producer of three Bonanza telefilms and a retrospective.

Sarnoff in 1997 received the academy’s Syd Cassyd Founder’s Award, which honors a very select few Television Academy members who have made a significant, positive impact on the Academy through their service over many years of involvement. He also served on the boards of the American Film Institute and other groups.

His father, David Sarnoff (1891-1971) was a pioneer in radio and television, heading a conglomerate of companies that included RCA and NBC, which were founded in 1919 and 1926, respectively.

He is survived by sons Daniel and Timothy; a daughter, Cynthia Sarnoff-Ross; nine grandchildren; and one great-grandchild. His wife wife of 67 years, Janyce, died in 2021.

City News Service contributed to this report.

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